Help! I think I'm trapped in the wrong body...
CJ replies:I feel very awkward asking this question. I am a 13 year old girl, and I feel like I'm trapped inside my own body. I have never told anyone about this before, and I'm really confused. Are there certain ways to tell if you're transgender or not? I feel like I'm more attracted to guys, but I sometimes have thoughts about girls too. I'm a little young to figure it out on my own, but I've watched my fair share of those sex-change shows. I also feel like I go on the Internet a lot, because there I am anonymous, and I can say I'm a boy. I know the works of sex, so you don't need to tiptoe around the answer. I couldn't even imagine telling anyone I know about this problem. I feel like puberty is hitting, and it's hitting hard. I can't stand having boobs, it makes me feel even more uncomfortable. Another awkward question. Is there some kind of strap-on penis that is wearable? If so, could you provide detail? I really appreciate you listening to this. It was really hard for me to say, because I feel like I've been lying to myself, and repressing these feelings. Thank you.
Feeling uncomfortable or trapped by one’s own body is a really hard feeling to manage. I’m really glad that even though it was a challenge you were able to put some words to your feelings, and I hope that maybe this response can help you feel a little less isolated in those feelings.
The first thing I want to talk about is the difference between gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Many people have a difficult time separating these out—after all, each of these concepts are important parts of who we are as humans and sexual beings—but I think it might be helpful for you to think about these as different (but connected) concepts. Gender identity is how we feel about ourselves on the inside, how we see ourselves as male, female, or something else all together! So gender identity is an internal thing, how we see ourselves. Gender expression is what we present to the world. There are so many things that are parts of gender expression: how we dress, our mannerisms, our social behaviors and activities, our posture, our “look”, how we speak, etc. It’s possible to experience yourself as one gender (that’s your gender identity—how you feel about yourself on the inside) and have the rest of the world see you as some other gender. For some people that can be really frustrating, especially when you feel strongly about your identity but nobody else knows or can see how you feel on the inside. Sometimes I think it would be convenient (if not a bit scary) if people could just see our insides and get how we feel about ourselves. It would save a bit of anxiety in your case, huh?
But gender identity and gender expression are different than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is a term that refers to where our attractions are directed and to whom we are emotionally, physically, sexually, and even spiritually attracted. And here’s where it starts to get a little bit trickier because, at least in English, the labels we have for sexual orientation are pretty much based on the labels we have for gender. If you’re a woman attracted to another woman, many people would label that as lesbian sexual orientation. If you’re a male attracted to another male, many people would call that gay. If you’re attracted to men and women some people might suggest that you are bisexual. But there are at least a couple of problems here.
First of all, it’s really all about what you want to call yourself and not what other people say that you “should” be. We all have the right to self-identify and take on whatever labels we want (or refuse to take on labels). Our bodies, our gender, and our sexuality are our own and we have the say in what we call ourselves. That’s the first thing. But the next thing is that these concepts of gender and of sexual orientation are really caught up in this (I believe false) idea of a binary gender system. What I mean by “binary” is that these terms are used with the idea that there are men, there are women, and that is that. There are two and only two genders and you must be one or the other. It’s pretty cut and dry if you think of it that way but I don’t think the world is really quite that simple.
I view gender as a spectrum. Instead of having two dots on opposite ends of a line (one male, one female) and nothing connecting them, I like to draw a line between the two and say that really any person can be anywhere along that line. There are an infinite number of points along that line and any of us can fall anywhere on the spectrum. I think that gender is fluid: there are more than two possibilities and it’s possible to move along the spectrum throughout your life. You don’t just have a gender and that is that for life. Life is about exploring and finding the best fit, then figuring out where to go from there. We can’t all fit really neatly into the binary gender system. Those are really tiny little gender boxes and I don’t think they give a good sense of the reality of our lived experiences.
I think that sexual orientation is also a spectrum. I believe there is so much more than gay, straight, and bisexual. If there are millions of different gender possibilities, then there are also millions of different sexual orientations. How you choose to define your sexual orientation is a really personal decision. Some people may be sexually active with a particular gendered partner, but have emotional attraction to another gender or have fantasies or dreams about some other gendered partner. You are whatever you want to call yourself and that is your right; nobody else can tell you what or who you are.
The same goes for your gender identity. There is no easy test that can tell you whether or not you are transgender, and certainly I can’t tell you whether you are or not! Even though adults sometimes like to pretend that they are the experts on you, you’re really the person who knows the most about your experiences and your feelings. It’s perfectly normal to question your own identity and go through this struggle about who you are and how you can find your place in the world. It can be a really isolating experience but there are many other folks who have amazingly similar thoughts. You’re never alone.
Transgender people can be any sexual orientation. Though we often see the acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), transgender doesn’t quite fit in there because it’s a gender identity rather than a sexual orientation. Transgender youth and adults may face some of the same issues as lesbian, gay, or bisexual youth and adults so it’s not completely ridiculous to throw all of those ideas together, but I think it leads people to the false assumption that if you are trans, then you must be lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Some transgender people definitely do identify in those ways, but just as in the non-transgender world, there’s a whole lot of diversity in how transgender people will identify.
You mentioned in your question that you might be a little young to figure this out on your own, but that’s a pretty loaded statement. There are many trans people (I use “trans” as shorthand for transgender, which is broad term that can be used to describe anyone who has a gender identity that is different from the socially-prescribed role of the sex they were assigned at birth) who will say that they knew they were “different” from a very young age, even if they didn’t quite have the words to describe how they felt or even to fully understand it themselves. There are also many trans people who don’t figure that out until later in life, but neither way makes you “more” trans or “really” trans; we each just have our own paths to travel in figuring out our identities, trans or not. I would never tell someone that they are too young to have a sense of their own bodies, but it is true that as you go through adolescence it’s part of your development to figure that stuff out. Lots is going to change for you over the next 10 years of your life and you may try on a bunch of different identities as you make your way through your life. Your gender may be one of those things that you question and that may change, or it actually may stay really consistent for you. The same goes for sexual orientation—you may feel one way and then refine or change your affections and that is ok. I always sort of grumble when adults tell kids that something is “just a phase” and dismiss their thoughts and feelings just because they are kids. Just remember that some things about you (including your favorite color, friendship circles, and taste in clothes) likely will shift, change, grow, and morph as a part of adolescent development, but there are other aspects of yourself that you will find stay amazingly stable.
Many people who recognize discomfort in their birth bodies early on have a hard time with puberty. It makes some sense if you think about it. If you feel like you’re a boy, for example, then going through puberty and starting to develop as a woman could totally be upsetting. Many trans youth that I work with report that puberty was when they had a really hard time with their gender identity and body image issues. I think that puberty can be awkward for LOTS of people, regardless of gender identity, so throw some questions about gender on top of the regular possibility of feeling a bit awkward when you go through puberty and grow into your own body…and that can be a bit rough.
You’re not doomed, though! I think that, first and foremost, self-acknowledgment is a really powerful and brave act. Even just writing this question moves you further along in your journey of discovery. You mentioned feeling like you’ve been lying to yourself and repressing these thoughts, but I’d urge you to be patient and compassionate with yourself. Answers about your gender identity may not come quickly or easily for you even if you really would like to know what’s up right now. There is no crystal ball that will tell us exactly how we will be in one year, five years, 10 years; the only way to find out is to keep on living and growing. Some people may experience huge relief in even putting a few words to their feelings, or just acknowledging that they have been feeling something about their gender.
It sounds as if you are really resourceful and have already figured out that going online allows you to create an identity and try on different identities for yourself. That is a great way to explore your own identity and what it might feel like for you to say that you are a boy, or feel like a boy. Just a quick reminder about internet safety—we never know who is behind the computer screen so you should always be mindful of not giving out too much personal information about yourself to anyone online! That said, how have you felt when you’ve gone online as a boy?
The internet can also be a great place to get more information about a topic or to get virtually connected with other folks who may have similar feelings or experiences than you. That can do a lot to help break down feelings of isolation or just of generally being overwhelmed by the number of questions and lack of answers.
Perhaps you’ve come across some of these sites yourself, but I want to offer some potential online resources for finding out more information about transgender issues, or to get some support:
Mermaids is an organization based in the United Kingdom, aimed at supporting transgender youth from ages 12-19. They have an active mailing list and discussion group for trans youth, as well as personal accounts from trans youth that talk about their experiences of coming to understand their gender identity, coming out, and other important topics. Overall I think this is a helpful website, though I will say that their book list is not geared for younger readers at all.
Trans Youth Family Alliance is an organization that aims to support and empower children and families to build supportive environments where all gender identities can thrive and be respected. The TYFA website has a lot of information for parents, which even if you aren’t ready to or don’t want to talk with your family, may offer some good perspective on that topic of families and how they react to a child questioning their gender identity or coming out as trans. TYFA does have an online list for FTMs from ages 13-17 but you DO need parental permission to sign up, or to be approved specially by a TYFA Leader.
Youth Resource, a project of Advocates for Youth (another great sexuality education resource) has online information about transgender issues and what it means to be transgender. Many of the youth quoted are a bit older than you, but some of what they say may speak to you, regardless.
TransYouth.com has a great collection of information about transgender youth and details of navigating life as a trans-identified young person. It includes a large number of links and can help you in connecting with local resources.
Again you are showing some amazing resourcefulness in finding some so-called “sex change shows” and watching them to get some more information about trans issues. However, let me warn you that often times media representations of trans people are really sensationalized or done for shock value. While there are some exceptions, often transness in the media is depicted as something that is freaky, weird, shocking, or just really sexualized. Certainly I feel confident saying that the small slice of trans identities we see represented in the media is just that—a really narrow view of trans people. There is no one right way to be trans but I think sometimes the media would like you to think otherwise. Often times we see images of MTFs (male-to-female trans people, meaning those who were assigned male at birth but now identify as female) in the media, but far less often do we see or hear anything about FTMs (female-to-male trans people, meaning those who were assigned female at birth but now identify as male). Even less often do we hear about those who do not identify as either males or females. “Genderqueer” is a term that some people use to mean that they identify at one of those points along the gender spectrum, but are neither male nor female. Some genderqueer people say that they see themselves as elements of many genders.
Our minds are really important tools when it comes to gender and how we feel about ourselves and view ourselves. As I mentioned above, sometimes the rest of the world cannot (or will not) see our internal views of ourselves. So where does that leave you, as a young person who feels one way about your body when nobody else can see that? Well, you have the power to think about yourself in whatever way feels right to you. Even if you never say anything to anyone else, you can still think of yourself as a boy if that is what feels good for you. You can name or call your body parts whatever you would like to, even if that is just something you do for yourself. Sometimes language can be really powerful in helping us feel more comfortable in our bodies. Maybe you don’t like having breasts, like you said, but thinking of them as your chest, or in some other more male-oriented term, can sometimes do a bit to help relieve your mind and stress about your body. The same goes for genitals; it might matter less what is physically there if you have words that you use to name your parts that are more in line with the way you view yourself. It may sound like a stretch, but if you feel more male internally then try thinking of your body in male terms. We know that there is so much more to our destiny than our biological parts! Use your mind to help reframe your body if it seems like that might be helpful to you.
Depending on your culture, religion, family, or personal beliefs you might also be able to change around your personal style to better reflect the way you feel internally. Though it’s not really fair, I think there is a lot more room for people who are assigned female at birth to wear clothes of another gender. Someone born female who is wearing pants will likely run into less trouble than someone who was assigned male at birth who wants to wear traditionally female clothes. I don’t know how much influence you have over what clothes you wear or where you shop, and maybe your family or guardian would totally not go for it, but maybe wearing more boyish clothes could be one way to explore more about your gender.
I think that your question about strap-on penises might be referring to something you can use daily to add a bit of a bulge to your pants. There definitely are products out there made specifically for this, though the places that sell them will all have age limits and guidelines for who can buy them, and that is typically at least 18+. So products specifically made for this purpose might not be an option to you as someone who is under 18 and does not have a parent or guardian who could make that purchase for you. However, there are other ways you may be able to achieve this look or explore these feelings without products that are geared for the 18+ crowd. I know it’s low-tech and it’s not exactly perfect, but a strategically rolled sock that is placed in your underwear can help achieve the same kind of look if you’re curious about what it might be like to have a “bulge” in your pants.
Regardless of how you end up coming to identify or what you learn about yourself I think that talking to others, in some way, can be really important. In reading your question I was struck by how alone you seem to feel, and how confusing it is to wade through these feelings and questions on your own. Finding someone who can be a support is hugely important! Online resources can be really amazing and provide great information but there’s also something to be said about having an actual person to speak with in real time. If you are in the United States, one way to get that support would be by calling the GLBT National Help Center, toll free at 1-888-THE-GLNH (1-888-843-4564). Check the link for their hours (Pacific Time), but they offer free and confidential phone counseling (and also email counseling is available) to talk about identity and coming out issues, family issues, and the like. They can also help make referrals to local organizations that might be able to offer you other assistance or support. Locating any local LGBT youth resources might also be helpful, and those organizations may have counseling services or support groups for trans youth.
For some people, even talking to a counselor at school might be an option. You can find out from your school counselors more about what confidentiality rules they need to follow. In many cases, unless you are threatening harm to yourself or someone else or are disclosing abuse, what you say to a school counselor is completely confidential and will not be shared even with your parents. Check in first to find out more about their confidentiality rules (and of course I don’t know your school counselor and whether he or she would be at all knowledgeable about or helpful with your particular questions or concerns) but keep that in mind as a possibility in case you feel more like you need to speak with someone.
I’d like to add a few thoughts about talking with parents or guardians if, after some self-exploration, you continue to struggle with your identity. There is no solid answer or rule about coming out to parents or having these conversations with them. Only you will know whether that is a good or safe idea, or if the moment is right. Some of the links I’ve given you contain great information about coming out to parents, as well as resources for parents. In many ways I think that having realization about a trans gender identity when you are younger can be even more challenging than having that recognition when you are a little bit older. Sure, each comes with its own set of challenges but when you are totally reliant upon your parents it can be really overwhelming to bring up conversations that you worry could upset them or result in not-so-positive outcomes. Do what you think is best and safest on this front, but do file away in your mind somewhere that parents—and all people—can sometimes be surprising in their reactions. I think that many parents, even if they don’t quite know what to say or what to do, want their children to be happy. If you find that your questions and confusion are having a huge impact on your life and you continue to feel really isolated, I hope that you can reach out to someone, parents or just a supportive friend, other family member, counselor, or another trusted adult.
Finally, as you are off and running on this crazy adventure of finding out more about yourself and your many identities, I wanted to leave you with some words that I find inspiring even when I’m faced with feeling alone in or confused about the world. This is a poem by Mary Oliver, called “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
What strikes me about Oliver’s words is the reminder that none of us can be perfect, nor should we be expected to obtain perfection. There are so many standards out there in the world, so many people who will be quick to tell you who you should become, whom or how you should love (yourself and others) or the timeline in which you should have all of that figured out. The reality is that there is no such timeline and so the best and most radically amazing thing we can do is to keep asking questions and keep listening to our own bodies and our own hearts. Whether you come to identify as transgender, identify as male, identify as female, or identify as something else that feels right to you, you are on the right path and you are not alone.
Here are some additional links and resources for you: